Not much left for Eastern Partners to aspire to as EU focuses on own interests in Riga

By bne IntelliNews May 19, 2015

Iana Dreyer in Brussels -


More energy and security ‘realpolitik’; hardly anything for the EU’s most euro-enthusiastic Eastern Partners to aspire to in coming months – these are the two likely takeaways from the Eastern Partnership summit to be held in Riga on May 21-22, according to draft conclusions obtained by bne IntelliNews.

The most striking fact about the draft conclusions obtained by bne IntelliNews ahead of the gathering this week in the Latvian capital is that they leave out any language alluding to the possibility that the EU’s so-called “Eastern Partners” might eventually join the bloc.

The summit will gather representatives of the EU, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. It will signal a new start for Armenia-EU relations, formalise a recent political rapprochement with Belarus and showcase overtly the bloc’s friendship with Azerbaijan, a key player in the EU’s strategy to diversify gas imports away from Russia.

The summit’s draft conclusions seen by bne IntelliNews reaffirm Ukraine’s commitment to implement its free trade and association agreement with the EU as of January 1, 2016.

Language that is still in brackets indicates that Brussels and Ukraine, the biggest of the six EU’s Eastern Partners, hope to ink an Aviation Agreement to create a joint air space.

The absence of language on a visa liberalisation agreement with Ukraine and Georgia indicates that hopes for a conclusion this spring have not materialised – fear of a flood of Ukrainian refugees is seen as a major stumbling block. Instead, the EU and Belarus are expected to launch “Mobility Partnership” talks, which could lead to limited labour mobility. The EU has initiated a rapprochement with Minsk in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis.

The EU hopes Georgia will sign on to the Energy Community, an arrangement with Balkan countries, Ukraine and Moldova through which these countries apply EU energy market rules and become better connected with EU energy markets.

The 13-page document highlights the EU’s renewed interest in seeing the frozen conflicts resolved in Transnistria, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in Georgia.

The EU also calls for greater future involvement of Eastern Partnership countries in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy operations, on similar terms as Ukraine’s participation in the ongoing EU-led counter-piracy operation Atalanta off the coast of Somalia.

Shadow of Russia

The summit is part of a series that have been held every two years since 2009, when the EU kick-started the Eastern Partnership policy framework to engage with its Eastern neighbours in response to the ‘Colour Revolutions’ and the Russian-Georgian war of 2008.

A pale replica of previous EU enlargement processes, the Eastern Partnership has resulted in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia signing Association Agreements involving free trade areas with the European economic bloc.

Throughout the process the EU has been ambivalent about offering a membership perspective to the democratising European countries on its eastern flanks, despite a right enshrined in EU treaties to join the bloc if conditions are met.

The initiative stirred resentment in Moscow. Ahead of the previous summit held in Vilnius in Lithuania in November 2013, Russia induced Armenia to drop its association process with the EU and instead join Russia’s own rival project, the Eurasian Economic Union.

Moscow was behind Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s last-minute decision not to sign Kyiv’s Association Agreement with Brussels. This move prompted popular protests that triggered the ongoing crisis in the country.

The 2013 Vilnius summit conclusions formally recognised “the European aspirations and the European choice of some partners and their commitment to build deep and sustainable democracy.” Those of the 2015 Riga state that “it is for the EU and its sovereign partners to decide on how they want to proceed in their relations”.

The Riga summit takes place as the EU is in the process of revising is neighbourhood policy. The thinking in Brussels is that it needs to take EU security and energy interests better into account.

But the EU is increasingly reluctant to offer its closest friends in the region – Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia – what they want most: a clear long-term EU membership perspective, visa-free travel, and more labour mobility. Many analysts believe this stance risks undermining their willingness to undertake the market-friendly and democratic reforms that Brussels wants to see.

Elzbieta Kaca, analyst at the Polish Institute for International Affairs, tells bne IntelliNews that “the [revision] process is going in the direction of Europe as a fence”.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Thomas de Waal and Richard Youngs explained the EU’s current approach to its Eastern Partners in a recent note: “European governments’ priority is to avoid rocking the boat with Russia and upsetting the extremely fragile calm that is scarcely holding together in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region”.

The following are extracts from the draft conclusions obtained by bne IntelliNews:

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